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8.1 The Twentieth Century

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize characteristics of Modernism in literature.
  2. Define postcolonial literature.
  3. Describe postmodern literature.
  4. Assess the role of English as a global language in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

London in the 1930s.

The Edwardian Age

The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the accession of Edward VII inaugurated not only a new century but a new milieu in art, an extension and development of the aestheticism that characterized the last decade of the 19th century. The Edwardian Age and the Modern Period which followed, roughly from 1910 through the end of World War II, differed sharply from the preceding age.

The elegance and extravagance of the aristocracy, led by King Edward VII, continued unchecked until World War I. However, underneath the ostentation so loved by the King sounded ominous warnings of unrest throughout Britain and the European continent. At the death of Edward VII in 1910, the British Empire also was dying as imperialism came under increasing criticism. Events such as the Boer War exposed the consequences of empire-building, and authors such as Joseph Conrad vividly portrayed for the British public a picture contrasting the supposed glory of empire. Even Edward VII himself criticized the British presence in India and the treatment of the country’s inhabitants.

Poet Thomas Hardy, often referred to as the great pessimist, depicted the new century as a time of uncertainty and disbelief, both in God and in the integrity of humankind. Cynicism and pessimism replaced Victorian optimism and confidence. Although science and technology continued their ever more rapid advancement with electricity, telegraph and radio, continued mechanization in workplaces, automobiles, and airplanes, society seemed to lack a solid center of reference, a core belief that held the uncertainties of life in check and gave life a sense of purpose and direction.

Hardy and Joseph Conrad bridge the 19th and 20th centuries, both in time and in the philosophy of their writing.

The Modern Age

World War I

King George V followed his father Edward VII to the throne in 1910 and reigned until 1936. Only four years after he became king, George V led his country through World War I, fighting against his first cousin Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, both men descendants of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Czar Nicholas II of Russia, overthrown and executed with his wife and family in 1917, was also King George’s cousin by marriage, his wife Alexandra another descendent of Victoria and Albert, whose children had married into most of the royal families in Europe.

George V by Sir Luke Fildes.

Essentially an entire generation of British men—and many women—were killed in World War I. Others returned maimed, physically and mentally. War poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owens vividly depicted the horror of war, the reality of war as compared to the slogans and imagined glory of fighting for one’s country. The economic cost of the war also devastated Britain. The conspicuous wealth of the Edwardian Era disappeared into a financial depression.

Irish nationalism brought added tension to Britain. The desire for home rule in Ireland, then part of the British Empire, culminating in the Easter Uprising of 1916, caused strife and instability on another front for Britain. Fears that Ireland would collaborate with Germany in World War I led to British concessions and, after the war, the granting of Irish independence in 1922. William Butler Yeats commemorated and contributed to Irish patriotism in his writing.

Arrest of a Suffragette, 1914.

The active role of women in the war effort helped achieve universal suffrage in 1928.

Women working in the absence of men during World War I.

By the end of World War I, Britain was a much different place from the exuberant, confident empire that Victoria knew.

World War II

The oldest son of George V, Edward, in his role of Prince of Wales and heir apparent was not allowed to participate in combat during World War I, but his efforts to visit and encourage areas suffering from depressed economic times in the 1930s made him a popular figure among the British. After the death of his father, Edward became King Edward VIII; however, within a year he made the government aware that he wished to marry the twice-divorced American woman Wallace Simpson. Because of the monarch’s role as head of the Church of England, political leaders and advisors in Britain opposed the marriage. Edward VIII chose to abdicate the throne in order to marry Simpson. Upon his abdication, his younger brother became King George VI. With his wife and queen, the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, George VI symbolized the courage, fortitude, and the “stiff upper lip” with which the country endured the hardships of World War II. The couple and their children, the current Queen Elizabeth II and her younger sister the late Princess Margaret, spent the war years at Buckingham Palace and in Windsor rather than evacuate to safer areas. The royal family’s determination to share in the hardships and dangers of the war earned the admiration of the British public.

Modern Literature

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the ill-fated girl Tess has a conversation with her brother in which he remembers that she has told him the stars are other worlds. When he asks if all the star-worlds are like their world, Tess replies that the worlds are like the apples on their tree, some “splendid and sound—a few blighted.” When he asks which they live on, a splendid one or a blighted one, Tess replies, “A blighted one.”

This comment sums up the world view of modernism.

Modernism in literature, approximately 1910 to 1945, is characterized by a feeling of loss of any centering, stabilizing factor in life, a break with tradition, and a reaction against established society, religion, and politics. Modernism sees humankind as lacking free will; instead individuals are victims of the circumstances in which they find themselves, victims of the environment much like animals. In addition, God, if there is a God, is detached from human affairs; a divine power may have set the world in motion, but the world now runs according to natural law without divine intervention. Writers such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf experimented with new forms of literature and new subject matter which explored and depicted modernism as it affected individual lives.

Modern novels attempt to present the reality of the mind, not of the external world. In fact, the narrative tends to reflect what modern writers felt was a lack of order and reason in the world. Novelists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce use a stream of consciousnessA narrative style which attempts to reproduce the random thought patterns of the human mind, affected by external stimuli and mental association. technique, a narrative style which attempts to reproduce the random thought patterns of the human mind, affected by external stimuli and mental association. This narrative technique tends to ignore conventions of punctuation and mechanics, much as they do not figure in one’s thoughts.

In poetry, imagismAn early 20th century movement in poetry that favored clear visual pictures painted with concrete, concise language., an early 20th century movement in poetry, favors clear visual pictures painted with concrete, concise language. Imagism promotes the use of hard images, sparse but specific language, and irregular meters. The imagists spurred a new interest in the 17th-century Metaphysical poets and their metaphysical conceits.

Early 20th-century drama reflects all the characteristics that permeate the time period: the alienating effects of technology, the loss of faith in traditional values, the feeling of purposelessness of life. Dramatists often attempted to shock and challenge audiences. Experiments in staging and stagecraft paralleled experiments in other genre. Leading 20th-century dramatists include Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter. Pinter’s plays such as The Dumb Waiter (1957) belong to the theatre of the absurdA type of drama intended to show the lack of meaning in modern life by depicting characters in senseless, hopeless situations speaking confusing, sometimes nonsensical dialogue. (a type of drama intended to show the lack of meaning in modern life by depicting characters in senseless, hopeless situations speaking confusing, sometimes nonsensical dialogue), with its portrayal of an individual’s lack of control over life, the impossibilities of communication among human beings, and social inequities.

The U.K.’s The Theatres Trust provides a history of theatre building in the first quarter of the 20th century, the effects of World War I and the precursors of cinema, and the state of the theatre during and immediately after World War II. The Victoria and Albert Museum provides a brief history of early 20th-century drama, as does Theatre Database. Theatre Database also includes an article on surrealism, theatre of the absurd, and major 20th-century playwrights and plays.

The New Elizabethan Age and Postcolonial Literature

Upon the death of King George VI in 1952, Elizabeth acceded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. Her realm, however, looked quite different from that of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who died only 51 years earlier.

By the end of the world wars, the British Empire no longer existed, replaced by the British Commonwealth. Countries that had been British colonies had over time become independent nations; many of those remaining colonies into the 20th century were granted their independence but remained dominions, rather than colonies, of Britain.

Postcolonial literatureLiterature written in the English language by residents of former British colonies. generally refers to literature written in the English language by residents of former British colonies. The subject matter of postcolonial literature typically addresses the oppression and exploitation of colonialism, the attempt to establish a national identity after independence, and the effects of colonialism and its aftermath on the individual. Emory University provides a Postcolonial Studies website that includes an introduction to postcolonialism, specific authors, themes, and issues typical of postcolonial discourse.

Among the questions raised about postcolonial literature is its place in studies of British literature. Does postcolonial literature belong in the category of “British” literature because the country of origin formerly belonged to the British Empire, or does the literature belong to the nationality which produced it? When the term English literature is used to designate literature written in the English language (rather than literature written in England or by English citizens), certainly postcolonial literature belongs in English literature studies, as would American literature, Australian literature, and the literatures of any other English-speaking countries. Some scholars therefore prefer the terminology “World Literature in English” to the word postcolonial that may, for some, perpetuate the paradigm of imperialists and their occupied victims. This term emphasizes the global view many scholars consider an important characteristic as well as a prime achievement of this literature. However, such an approach calls into question the inclusion in British literature studies of some writers traditionally considered British, such as Irish writers James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, both born in Ireland while it was a part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801–1921) but both advocates of Irish independence.


In his glossary of literary terms, Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman College, characterizes postmodernism: “While modernism mourned the passing of unified cultural tradition, and wept for its demise in the ruined heap of civilization, so to speak, postmodernism tends to dance in the ruins and play with the fragments.”

A search for a definition of postmodernism leads many to the conclusion that the term is indefinable. Some proffered descriptions of postmodernism negate the possibility of definition by explaining that postmodernism pushes to an extreme the modernist idea that life and thought have no central core of reality or meaning. Epistemology becomes reliant on the individual mind, and a plurality of epistemologies is considered not only possible but desirable. Only cultural constructs provide what is accepted as reality and truth.

Postmodernism may be placed in time: the years following World War II to the last decade of the 20th century. During the 1990s and the early 21st century scholars began to speak of being in a post postmodern era.

Postmodern literature exhibits some of the same traits as modern literature but pushes these traits to extremes beyond those of the modern era. For example, modernism’s attempts to reproduce the way the human mind works with a stream of consciousness technique lead to postmodern mixing of points of view and deliberate playing with chronology, often for the purpose of questioning realism’s ontology. Harold Pinter’s use of reverse chronology in his 1978 play Betrayal, for example, exemplifies a postmodern manipulation of time. In a postmodern world, realism and the possibility of absolute truth, moral truth or empirical truth, do not exist. One hundred years after the Victorians grappled with a faith-doubt conflict, the postmodern world embraced nihilismA philosophy which denies the existence of an objective, knowable reality, intrinsic meaning in life, and absolute moral values. (a philosophy which denies the existence of an objective reality, intrinsic meaning in life, and absolute moral values) in reality and morality.

As a means of exploring the construct of reality, postmodernism employs metafictionFiction about the process of creating fiction., fiction about the process of creating fiction. A literary work in which both the author and the reader are conscious of the artifact as a creation of the author’s mind mirrors the process of the mind constructing reality.

Descriptions of modernism and postmodernism including a comparative chart are available from Dr. Martin Irvine at Georgetown University.

Post Postmodernism

Although many scholars would agree that the arts, including literature, have moved beyond postmodernism, there is no agreement on a description or characteristics of the current era, most agreeing that history will make those determinations.

The Development of the English Language in the Twentieth Century

Through the 20th century, English became a global language. Although early in the century British and American imperialism played a role, the changing nature of communication and technology now demands a common language in politics, economics, manufacturing, trade, travel, science, technology, indeed in all human endeavors.

Key Takeaways

  • Joseph Conrad’s criticism of imperialism and Hardy’s depiction of the 20th century as a time of uncertainty and lack of belief served as precursors of dominant philosophies of the 20th century.
  • Modernism in literature, approximately 1910 to 1945, is characterized by a feeling of loss of any centering, stabilizing factor in life, a break with tradition, and a reaction against established society, religion, and politics.
  • Post-colonial literature evolved as former colonies gained their independence and often addresses the resultant issues.
  • Postmodernism describes literature produced after World War II which often, sometimes in an ironic fashion, pushes the concerns of modernism to extremes.


  1. Using the websites listed in Resources: Development of the English Language as a starting point, defend or contradict the claim that English has become or will become a global language. Look for specific fields or activities in which English is used globally.


General Information

Edwardian England

World War I




Development of the English Language